Wicked, The Other Boleyn Girl, women, and power.

August 12, 2008

Wicked, like The Other Boleyn Girl, is the story of two women striving for power. But oh, Wicked does the story so much better.

(Note: spoilers for both will follow.)

In Wicked, we see Glinda and Elphaba as they follow ultimately divergent paths in their attempts to gain the power to change Oz. Glinda plays along with the powers that be, in the hopes of changing things from the inside, while Elphaba tries to forge her own way, but both wish to work for the good of Oz. Ultimately, Elphaba is killed, and Glinda is honored by the power structure, but neither is able to effect the change they would have liked to see, and it is very much a story of missed chances and lost dreams.

The story of Anne and Mary Boleyn– the real people– could easily be told in a very similar way, as astute commenter Colleen pointed out here.

I think they were both, in very different ways, trying desperately to lighten as much as possible the yoke of male domination. Anne harnessed her sexuality, the only power she had, to rise to a post in which only one man could tell her what to do. Mary bore it meekly as long as she could in order to lessen its ill effects, then at first opportunity ran off with someone who, by virtue of his far inferior class and income, would have a much harder time asserting his rights as a husband.

The parallels are pretty straightforward– Glinda/Mary doing things the “right” way, Elphaba/Anne being much more bold and uncompromising, Glinda/Mary receiving a pat on the head but no world-changing success, Elphaba/Anne being killed for their transgressions. And, of course, the idea that both girls are working for the same, honorable goal– fighting totalitarianism in Oz, fighting institutionalized sexism in England.

Except The Other Boleyn Girl doesn’t tell this story, with its parallel to Wicked. In the movie, as I’ve said before and before, we are shown the story of Good Mary and Bad Anne, an oversimplification that tells the tale from the patriarchy’s point of view.

Which is why, given trustworthy reports that the book tells much the same story, I’m going to declare Gregory Maguire to be a better writer than Phillipa Gregory.

Gregory Maguire started from a story of “Glinda Good, Elphaba Bad” to give us two women struggling for goals of freedom, striving together and then apart, growing, trying again, and ultimately making not a lot of progress. He showed us their love-hate relationship, he showed us their sex lives, he showed us their dreams and desires. In other words, he gave us two complex, real people and the struggles of their lives.

Phillipa Gregory took two complex, real people and the struggles of their lives, and gave us “Mary Good, Anne Bad.” She botched what was surely an interesting sibling relationship, ramped up the sex lives to titillate (Now with 200% more incest!), and left out all the dreams and fears that made these two women human. The actors did their best to compensate– Natalie Portman was fantastic– but it was ultimately a flat story.

They should have made Wicked a movie instead.

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More on The Other Boleyn Girl

August 4, 2008

It occurs to me that some of the dialogue between Anne and Mary’s parents in the first thing really supports my theory that the movie meant to show us that Mary was Good and Anne was Not.

The girls are playing in a field, and Mr. Boleyn tells Mrs. Boleyn that someone has proposed to Anne. Mrs. Boleyn says, “Oh, that’s great,” and Mr. Boleyn says, “Nah, Anne can do better. I offered them Mary instead.”

“But Mary is the kinder and the fairer of the two,” says Mrs. Boleyn.

“But those traits do not bring greatness,” says Mr. Boleyn. “Anne is more cunning and more ambitious. She will achieve much and truly elevate our family.”

As they watch, Anne tackles her sister and brother, winning their game.

(Note: all of this is paraphrasing from memory)

Initially it seems Mr. Boleyn is correct, since Mary’s goodness and beauty attract the king but cannot keep them in the face of Anne’s cunning and ambition, but in one of the closing scenes, Mrs. Boleyn is vindicated.

“My children!” she cries (or something to that effect.) “What have you done to my children? My daughters have publicly whored themselves, shaming our family, and now Anne and Brother-With-A-Forgettable-Name
are dead! You have killed them and destroyed our family by encouraging Anne’s ambition! If you had married Anne off to Merchant-Boy and kept her in the countryside, Mary would have remained the king’s mistress, and he would have remained loyal to her for his son’s sake. We would have been comfortably in his good favor forever! Or if we had never done any of this, we could have lived comfortably by our own means. But now we are ruined! And I reiterate, it’s because you didn’t restrain Anne, That Ambitious Bitch!”

Mr. Boleyn hangs his head, accepting his guilt.

(Okay, this is from memory and embellished. A bit.)

But the point is, Mrs. Boleyn is shown to have been entirely right. Mary’s goodness is to be valued more than Anne’s ambition.

On an only-slightly related note, it occurs to me that we never see Anne have sex. I have no idea why. We see Mary about to have sex with her new Merchant-Boy husband, and we hear Mary talk about it later, and we see Mary have sex with Henry more than once, and we hear Mary talk about it later more than once, but we never see Anne have sex with anyone. Anne consummates her marriage to Otherwise-Engaged-Rich-Guy entirely off-camera, and even when she’s regularly sleeping with Henry, she’ll rant to Mary about it but we never get a glimpse. The only time we see “sex” is when Henry rapes her, which isn’t sex because it’s rape. (Sex implies consent. She says “Stop, you’re hurting me! Henry!” and then cries. This does not a consent make.)

Is it that we can’t see Anne enjoying herself? Maybe her perceived frigidity is so central to her characterization that showing her having sex would seem out of character. But they could show a frigid, “dutiful” sex (like Mary and Merchant-Boy) if that characterization is too important to break…is that what they imagined they were doing with that rape scene?

Actually, after he and Anne get together, we hardly see them together at all. Well, really, we hardly see Henry at all; we watch the breakdown of their relationship entirely through Anne’s increasingly-frantic talks with Mary. It’s effective storytelling, because Anne is so distressed that I sympathized immediately, but…their problems were fundamentally Henry’s fault. He was overly suspicious of her (possibly because he was being unfaithful himself/ seriously contemplating it.) He was obsessed with controlling her, even though he fell in love with her because of her independence (a situation sure to make both of them miserable.) She just wanted to be his wife and bear his children (on pain of destruction or death). By focusing the camera entirely on her as the marriage falls apart, it makes it feel like its failure is her fault. We needed to see more of Henry screwing up.

Actually, that goes for the movie as a whole: we needed to see more of Henry screwing up, and less of Anne’s Ambitious, Bitchy Plots failing.


The Other Boleyn Girl

July 31, 2008

Wretched and disgraced, Sir Thomas Boleyn died two years later.

The Duke of Norfolk was later imprisoned. The next three generations of his family – son, grandson, great grandson – were all executed for treason.

Henry’s decision to break with the Catholic Church changed the face of England forever.

Mary married William Stafford and lived happily with him away from court for the rest of her life.

Henry’s fear of leaving England without a strong successor turned out to be unfounded.

He did leave an heir, who was to rule over England for forty-five years.

It was not the boy he yearned for, but the strong red-haired girl Anne gave him –

Elizabeth.

So ends the movie. (I’ve decided there are no “spoilers” for 14th-century history.) It left me with an odd feeling…for a movie ostensibly about two women, it sure was all about the man. And there was an odd dynamic of Good Mary/ Bad Anne going on with regards to their ambition etc.

First, the way the plot revolves almost entirely around Henry. This makes sense, because the “story” of Anne Boleyn is very much about Henry, but it is also very much about Henry’s descent into madness. He destroys much that matters to him– his faith, women he loved– and many more lives of people who ceased to matter to him, in his need for ultimate power and control. (Henry is very much obsessed with control.) There’s a good story to be told about Henry.

And yet…this movie revolves around Henry, but it doesn’t tell the story about Henry. Look again at the first three subtitle-fates we’re given

Wretched and disgraced, Sir Thomas Boleyn died two years later.

Destroyed by his brush with Henry’s madness, makes sense with Henry’s story, all right.

The Duke of Norfolk was later imprisoned. The next three generations of his family – son, grandson, great grandson – were all executed for treason.

Victims of Henry’s growing irrational suspicion of everyone, definitely a good example, okay.

Henry’s decision to break with the Catholic Church changed the face of England forever.

Buh?!?

Try something like, “Henry continued to destroy the lives around him in his quest for control, going through four more wives and executing one– and countless other courtiers– for treason.” I mean, a better sentence could be written, but that’s the sort of summary of Henry’s life that would fit with this movie. Exactly two scenes mention his break with the Catholic Church– this movie wasn’t about the Catholic Church. Everybody knows that part of the story. This movie deals almost exclusively with the beginning– Anne’s failed flirtation, his relationship with Mary– and with the end– Anne’s desperate failure to produce a son. We go from Anne’s first suggestion that he annul his marriage with Catherine to Elizabeth’s birth in fifteen minutes.

This means that the movie also focuses on the beginning and and of Henry’s story– his initial peace, then growing dissatisfaction with Catherine; his search for affection with Mary, and the sweetness he shows her; the souring of that relationship, as he continues to refuse to be satisfied; his betrayal of Mary for Anne; twenty minutes on how he comes to marry Anne, then the deterioration of their relationship; then, his final unwillingness to trust or show mercy, culminating in Anne and her brother’s bloody deaths. This is the story that the movie told. The deterioration of a man. This is the story that the ending should have included. But instead, we get rubbish about the Church of England, and how Elizabeth made a great heir after all.

It occurs to me, that even though I thought I saw that story, maybe the screenwriters saw a different one. I thought we were meant to see the change in him when, in the middle, he rapes Anne. I thought it a plausible embellishment– it’s certainly possible, given his state, that he would have gotten angry with Anne and taken her before their wedding. It would show how much he was losing his grip, how much he needed control– because he could never control Anne the way he could Mary, and that’s the whole reason he pursued her; he had to dominate Anne. And when Anne asks Mary later, and Mary says he was always tender with her, surprisingly tender, I thought the screenwriters were hitting us over the head with the idea that Henry was losing it.

But with this ending…I worry that instead, the screenwriters were trying to tell the story of Good Sweet Mary and her sister, Anne That Ambitious Bitch. In this story, Anne tries to show off and pursue the king, but he prefers the girl who is sweet and shy. He is loving and gentle with Mary because she is so good and quiet, but Anne is too ambitious and showy, and seduces him away from her sister, spoiling that happy relationship. But because she still won’t submit to the king, forcing him to jump through more and more hoops for her, she also ruins her relationship with him. He rapes her because she has been leading him on for too long and needs to be put in her place. Their marriage is loveless because she never loved him, and only wanted his power and money. Their sex life is strained because she is not soft and sensuous like a woman should be– at one point, she tells Mary that she has to do ever more degrading things to arouse him, and then he hates himself for it, and hates her for making him do it (since she should be more wholesome.) In the end, Anne gets what’s coming for her and is beheaded, but Mary is shown mercy because the king respects her goodness, and so Mary gets to live happily ever after in the wholesome country without any of that icky money or ambition, raising children with a former servant. The end!

This is the story that I think the movie was really trying to tell, and I must say, it is not a story I like nearly so much.

ETA: Upon reflection, this would also explain the sometimes-confusing relationship between Mary and Anne. I originally saw it as the kind of complicated relationship that siblings often have, where they love each other because they’re sisters and sisters have to, but they are also often very frustrated with each other. They compete and sometimes betray each other or make each other angry but they keep coming back to each other because of that bond of sisterhood; their relationship is tense on both sides, but ultimately loving.

However, at many points (which are rather hard to articulate after the fact, actually) one or both would say something that didn’t fit this interpretation– Anne would be a bit cruel even in the middle of an apology, or the apology itself would be unclear, or, in a scene I remember clearly, she seemed absolutely overjoyed that even as her sister held his son, Henry preferred her. It seemed to go beyond the tense competition into something rather spiteful, or else it didn’t seem to return to the note of love quite soon enough.

But if we assume that Mary is Good and Anne is Not, all becomes clear. Anne is sometimes cruel to Mary because Anne is a cruel person with no sisterly feeling. Mary always forgives her because Mary is good like that. Sometimes Anne is kind to Mary, but only if she wants something or only to maintain appearances. Sometimes Mary does something to make Anne upset (like reporting Anne’s secret marriage) but that’s not a betrayal, that’s for Anne’s own good; Anne only feels betrayed because Anne’s goals are not good and pure.

I know that the real people these characters are based on were complex and had multi-faceted relationships, because all real people do, and it is possible to watch this film as if they were nuanced people, but increasingly I fear that the Mary Good/Anne Bad assumption explains more things that it doesn’t.

Was it like this in the book as well? I’ll have to read it. I certainly hope it wasn’t!

ETA again: There’s an excellent post on related ideas over at Hathor Legacy, here.

ETA a third time: turns out I had so much more to say about this, I just went ahead and wrote a second post. Check it out.